Japanese businesses began building their first automobiles in the middle to late 1910s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Japanese cars started to show they could produce world beaters. That’s why we have created a list of the ten best Japanese cars produced in the 1960s. Read on to find out what they are.
To start off this list we have the Toyota 2000GT. Designed to take on the likes of the E-Type Jaguar and the Porsche 911, the 2000GT was Japan’s most expensive car at the time and it has gone on to become the country’s most valuable classic with examples fetching well over $1,000,000 at auction.
Development of the car started soon after the 1964 Japanese Grand Prix and it was designed to provide a new driving experience for Japanese motoring enthusiasts. Toyota enlisted the help of Yamaha to create the 2000GT. Yamaha had already developed a prototype sports car for Nissan, but the company rejected the offer and went on to create the 240Z.
Toyota and Yamaha worked together on the design and in 1965 they unveiled the 280A1 prototype at the Tokyo Motor Show. The sleek and stylish prototype impressed attendees at the show, but buyers would have to wait two years before they could get their hands on the real thing.
The production 2000GT featured a longitudinally mounted 150 hp 2.0-litre in-line 6-cylinder engine, which was then mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. Performance was impressive for the power output with a 0-100 km/h (62 mph) time of 10 seconds and a top speed of 215 km/h (133 mph). Some 2.3-litre models were also created for the American market.
The 2000GT also a featured a limited slip differential and all-round power-assisted disc brakes as standard, a first for a Japanese production car.
Toyota took great inspiration from the E-Type Jaguar and their own Sports 800 for the bodywork of the car. On the inside, the luxurious theme continued, however, the 2000GT was somewhat cramped compared to its Western counterparts.
Production carried on for three years and Toyota produced a total of 351 cars. The 2000GT’s most famous moment was when it appeared in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice”.
Make sure you check out our video on the history of the 2000GT below.
Also check out our ‘Complete History of the 2000GT’ article as well.
Nissan Fairlady Z (Datsun 240Z)
While arguably a 1970s car, the Fairlady Z did arrive in 1969 and that’s why we have included it in this list. Nissan originally started working on the Fairlady Z in 1965. The project was internally dubbed the S30, and it was to be a two-seat fastback with a rear hatch.
Nissan had originally worked with Yamaha to create a sports car, but they soon decided to do it alone. The Yamaha sports car turned into the 2000GT. Nissan took elements of Yamaha’s prototype car and used them to help develop the S30.
The S30 featured four-wheel independent suspension with struts front and rear. It had disc brakes at the front and drums in rear. To keep production costs low, many of the car’s components were sourced from other Nissan vehicles.
The production version of the S30, the Fairlady Z, was first offered in Japan in October 1969. It featured a 130 horsepower 2.0-litre inline-6-cylinder engine and stylish bodywork. The engine size was 2.0-litres to comply with Japan’s lower tax rates for smaller engine cars.
In the United States, Nissan introduced the Datsun 240Z in late 1969. It featured a 151 horsepower 2.4-litre inline-6-cylinder engine that could get the car from 0-100 km/h (62 mph) in as little as 8 seconds and on to a top speed of 200 km/h (125 mph).
The Fairlady Z range would go on to be one of Nissan and Japan’s most famous series of sports cars.
Honda’s second production car, the S500 was one of the coolest Japanese cars of the sixties and showed that the company meant business. It was unveiled at the ninth Japan National Auto Show in October 1962 and hit the market one year later.
It was essentially a larger displacement version of the S360 roadster, that was developed for sale but never actually produced. Like the S360, the S500 featured a high-tech engine developed from Honda’s motorcycle experience.
The engine was a 44 horsepower 531cc water-cooled in-line 4 cylinder 4-cycle DOHC engine with four Keihin carburettors. Power was sent to the rear wheels via a chain and incredibly the redline was 9500rpm. With a low bodyweight of just 680kg, the S500 could hit 129 km/h (80mph).
The tiny engine was mated to a 4-speed manual transmission and the car featured a novel four-wheel independent suspension system with torsion bars in the front and diagonal coilover shock absorbers at the back.
Honda produced the S500 until September 1964 when they replaced it with the S600, a 606cc version of the S500.
Originally based on the 1964 Crown Eight, the Toyota Century featured a 2.6-litre V8 engine and was as luxurious as could be. It was designed to be company’s flagship car and derived its name from the 100th birthday of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.
The Toyota Century was (and still is) used by the Imperial House of Japan, the Prime Minister of Japan, high-level business executives and other government officials.
Apart from some minor changes and engine updates, this generation of the Toyota Century continued to be produced until 1997, when it was replaced by the second generation G50. The car is now on its third generation.
Inspired by contemporary BMW’s and considered by some to be a ‘poor man’s BMW’, Datsun’s 510 series of cars were some of the best Japanese vehicles of the sixties. Launched in October 1967, the 510 range was made available in two-door sedan, four-door sedan, five-door station wagon and two-door coupé forms.
It was sold in the United States as the Nissan Bluebird (510 series) and in various other countries as the Datsun 1600.
The 510 range was created as Nissan was under pressure to create more modern vehicles that appealed to the American market.
Nissan Motors president, Yutaka Katayama, inspired industrial engineer Teruo Uchino to create something special. Uchino took this as an opportunity to expand his skills and further his career. He took elements of both the 310 and the 410 designs and mixed them to create the 510.
The 510 featured a lightweight aircraft style monocoque design and unibody construction that cemented the car as one of the best in automotive history. It also featured four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts at the front and semi trailing arms at the rear (wagon models had a solid live rear axle and leaf springs in rear)
Nissan mated the special body to a 1.6-litre L-series engine that produced 96 horsepower. Buyers could opt for either a 4-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic transmission.
With nearly 100 horsepower on tap, the 510 range was capable of hitting 160 km/h (100 mph).
Production ended in 1973 with more than 500,000 cars being sold.
Introduced in February 1969, the first generation GT-R was one of the most exciting and impressive cars to come out of Japan at the time. The car made its first debut at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show and was advertised alongside Nissan’s R380 racecar to showcase the Skyline’s racing heraldry.
The GT-R was based on the Skyline range, which originated from the Prince Motor Company. The company successfully produced a number of luxury automobiles before it merged with Nissan in 1966.
Prince created a racing version of the Skyline in 1964, which was designed to compete against the likes of the Porsche 904. It was based on the S54 and used the G-7 engine from the Gloria S41. This gave the engineers experience in developing a high performance Skyline model.
The lessons learnt from the S54 and the Skyline Sport led to the development of the first generation GT-R. Internally designated as the PGC10, the GT-R featured a 2.0-litre DOHC S20 inline-six engine with 160 horsepower and 130 lb ft of torque. Nissan mated the powerful engine to a 5-speed manual transmission and a limited slip differential.
The Skyline GT-R sat on a semi-trailing arm strut suspension setup and the braking system consisted of disc brakes at the front and drum brakes at the back. Initially, the car was only available as a four-door sedan, but a coupe was launched in 1971 with the chassis code KPGC10.
On the inside, the car featured racing bucket seats, a three-spoke steering wheel with wood inserts, aluminium pedals and not much else.
Nissan’s PGC10 GT-R racked up an impressive 33 wins in the one and a half years it raced, and was only eventually beaten by the Mazda Savanna RX-3. By the time the car was discontinued in 1972 it had won an incredible 1,000 races, making it one of the most successful Japanese race cars of all time.
The first generation GT-R is also known as the “Hakosuka”, which combines the Japanese word for box (“hako” or ハコ) and the abbreviation of skyline (“Suka” or スカ as in スカイライン or “sukairain”).
Mazda Cosmo Series I & II
With an increasingly competitive automotive market, Mazda needed to create something special to raise its image. Mazda saw the success that Honda had achieved by pioneering new technologies and decided to follow suite.
They needed technology that would get people excited about their cars, but that would also work with existing fuel and maintenance infrastructure. The company settled on the Whankel rotary engine that was first conceived by Felix Heinrich Wankel.
Mazda produced a number of prototypes with the engine during the sixties, but it wasn’t until 1967 that a production car would get the power unit. The 1967 Cosmo Series I demonstrated that the Whankel engine worked well on both the road and racetracks.
With 109 horsepower and 96 lb ft of torque, the 982cc twin rotor engine propelled the 940kg Series I from 0-100 km/h (62 mph) in 8.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 185 km/h (115 mph).
To prove that their car was reliable, Mazda entered two modestly modified Series I Cosmo cars in the 84 hour Marathon de la Route at Germany’s difficult Nürburgring circuit. While one car did not finish due to a rear axle failure in the 82nd hour, the other managed to achieve fourth, a great success for the small Japanese company.
Despite the achievements of the first generation Cosmo, it was Series II that really pushed the range forward. The Series II was greatly improved over the Series I and featured a much more powerful 128 horsepower 103 lb ft of torque L10B 0813 engine.
With all the extra horsepower available, the Series II could do the quarter mile in 15.8 seconds (16.4 for the Series I) and go on to a top speed north of 193 km/h (120 mph).
The Series II was fitted with a 5-speed manual transmission and servo assisted brakes. It was also enlarged slightly, with a longer wheelbase to improve the car’s ride qualities and provide additional room.
Production ended in 1972, but the car would go on to influence the likes of the RX-3 and of course the famous RX-7.
Toyota Sports 800
While the Sports 800 may by physically diminutive in stature, it is one of the most important car’s in Toyota’s history. It was the first production sports car built by Toyota and has gone on to inspire many of the company’s performance vehicles from the 2000GT, to Celica and the Supra.
The Sports 800 Officially launched in Japan in April 1965, around two-and-a-half years after Toyota Publica Sports concept car was seen at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show.
Compared to the concept car, the Sports 800 featured a traditional door arrangement instead of the dramatic but slightly impractical sliding canopy arrangement. It also featured a targa-style roof, making it one of the first production cars to do so.
Under the hood, the Sports 800 was given a 790cc version of the U-series air-cooled two-cylinder engine found in the concept. This dual carburetted 2U-B engine sent its 45 horsepower to the rear wheels, which was enough to get the lightweight 580kg body to 160 km/h (100 mph).
During its production run from 1965 to 1969, Toyota produced 3,131 units and it was never officially sold or exported outside of Japan.
Datsun Fairlady (Sports 2000)
The Datsun Fairlady SR311 (or the Datsun Sports 2000 in the United States) was the precursor to the Fairlady Z and was the final example of a series of roadsters that had been produced by Nissan during the sixties. It was designed to compete against of the likes of the Fiat 124, the MGB and the Alfa Romeo Spider.
The Fairlady can trace its roots back to the 1959 S211 (Sports 1000), which featured a 988cc straight-4 that produced 36 horsepower. Between the S211 and the Fairlady SR311, Nissan also produced the SPL212 (Sports 1200), the SP310 (Sports 1500) and the SP311 (Sports 1600).
In Japan, the Fairlady SR311 featured a 2.0-litre SOHC four-cylinder engine that produced a respectable 133 horsepower. For those who wanted a bit more oomph, an optional competition package was made available that included twin Mikuni-Solex carbs and produced 148 horsepower.
The Fairlady was lauded as a bargain sports car, and it was raced in numerous different events. It won its class in C Production (Mikuni-Solex carburettors) and D-Production (Hitachi-SU carburettors) SCCA racing, and also continued to race well after produced had ceased.
Isuzu 117 Coupe
To finish off this list we have the Isuzu 117 Coupe which was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, a man who has helped design some of the best looking cars of all time including the Maserati Merak, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT and the Ferrari 250 GT.
The 117 Coupe was first spotted as a prototype at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, and was later displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show the same year. Isuzu started small-scale production of the 117 in 1968, hand building each one. Mass production would not happen until 1973.
Initially, the Isuzu 117 Coupe was given a 1.6-litre DOHC inline-four cylinder engine that produced 120 horsepower. Various other engines, including a 2.0-litre inline-four and a 2.2-litre diesel, were made available during car’s production life.
The engine was mated to either a 4 or 5-speed manual gearbox or a 3-speed automatic transmission.
Production ended in 1981 with a total of 86,192 units produced.